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Quick Takes: Saunders on hot seat? Wild need to shake up top line and decision time for Vikings

Spurs Timberwolves Basketball
Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders calls out to his team in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 96-88. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

The Timberwolves had an epic collapse on Wednesday, the Wild won for the third time in four games on their season-opening West Coast trip and the Vikings officially found out they again will have to find a new offensive coordinator. Let’s examine each of these topics.

  • Item: The Timberwolves blew a 20-point lead against Orlando at Target Center as the Magic rallied for a 97-96 victory on rookie Cole Anthony’s buzzer-beating three-pointer.
  • Reaction: The Wolves dropped to 3-10 with a brutal loss that did nothing to help coach Ryan Saunders’ job security. Minnesota has lost 10 of 11, including blowing double-digit leads in the fourth quarter in back-to-back home games. Each defeat causes more and more of what remains of the Wolves faithful to call for a coaching change. While the 34-year-old Saunders has made plenty of decisions that can be second-guessed, his defenders will point to the fact that star center Karl-Anthony Towns has played in only four games. So is Saunders in jeopardy of being fired by owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas? That’s a loaded question because one could argue that much of the blame should be placed on Rosas. Rosas spent last season (his first with the franchise) making deals to revamp the Wolves roster and, yet, little has changed. The Wolves do not have a good option at power forward and the big-man depth behind Towns is lacking. Veteran Ricky Rubio, who is currently out under the NBA’s health and safety protocol rules, was brought back in the offseason but struggled before leaving the lineup. Guard D’Angelo Russell, obtained from Golden State in the Andrew Wiggins deal last February, far too often hasn’t looked like a max-contract player and the Wolves’ issues go on and on. Considering the Wolves, like all NBA teams, are losing revenue and the fact Towns is currently sidelined because of COVID-19, Saunders is likely safe for this season. The Wolves knew he probably wasn’t ready for this job when he was named to the full-time position but Taylor still decided to hire him. Taylor likely would find it difficult to fire Saunders, considering Ryan’s late father, Flip, and Taylor were close. But it’s disturbing that the Wolves continue to look so lost and, don’t forget, Towns played in the team’s loss to Memphis (in which Minnesota blew a 12-point lead in the final quarter) a week ago Wednesday. If the Wolves continue down this path, one has to believe changes will be coming but not until the offseason.
  • Item: The Wild opened their season by rallying to beat the Kings in back-to-back overtime games before recording a 3-2 win over Anaheim on Wednesday after a 1-0 loss to the Ducks on Monday. So everything is perfect, right?
  • Reaction: Not exactly. The Wild power-play went 1-for-20 in California and Kevin Fiala and Zach Parise have yet to record a point. Fiala does lead the team with 20 shots. Parise is at 13 shots while playing on the Wild’s first line. That first line is what I’d like to see addressed. Coach Dean Evason opened the season with a top line that had Nick Bjugstad centering Parise and standout rookie Kirill Kaprizov. Bjugstad lasted only one game before being replaced by Victor Rask. While Evason has found good chemistry with his third (Jordan Greenway-Joel Eriksson Ek-Marcus Foligno) and fourth lines (Nico Sturm-Bjugstad-Ryan Hartman), he should consider a shakeup. Evason got a preview of what could be in the third period on Wednesday when Kaprizov extended his shift and ended up assisting on Eriksson Ek’s winning goal. The Wild don’t have a clear-cut top two center on their roster, but Eriksson Ek is the best they have and leaving him on the third line is selling either Kaprizov or Fiala short. Evason should put Kaprizov on the right wing with Eriksson Ek (two goals, one assist) and Greenway (three assists) and put Rask and Parise with the hard-working Foligno. It’s not ideal to break up a solid third line, but the Wild top six forward situation isn’t ideal either. Putting Greenway on the No. 1 line might raise some eyebrows, but it’s a better solution than having Rask as your top center.
  • Item: Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak makes it official by announcing his retirement.
  • Reaction: The move comes as no surprise, given it was reported shortly after the season that the 59-year-old Kubiak was leaning toward retirement. Minnesota will be looking for its sixth offensive coordinator since Mike Zimmer became coach in 2014, and its fourth offensive coordinator in Kirk Cousins’ four seasons as quarterback. The theory among many is that quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, Gary’s son, will be promoted to the offensive coordinator’s job so the team can continue to run an offense that was fourth in the NFL in yards this season (11th in scoring) and also can keep Cousins in the same system. Let’s be honest: Zimmer likely wants to keep the same offense because it relies heavily on the run and that’s what he wants. But would the Vikings considering shaking up things and bringing in a play-caller who makes Cousins the centerpiece of the scheme instead of running back Dalvin Cook? That seems unlikely given how poorly things went in 2018 when John DeFilippo was brought in and then fired late in that season by Zimmer. There also likely would be a case to be made that with another pandemic-impacted offseason ahead, changing the scheme might be difficult. Nonetheless, if Cook’s touches decreased and young superstar Justin Jefferson became much more involved on a weekly basis would that be a bad thing?